Pronunciation

On a YouTube channel I watch, the person who made a video mispronounced the word “Hitachi”.  He pronounced it “Hai-TA-chi”.  I posted a helpful comment telling him the correct way to pronounce it.

Someone “took me to task” for correcting his pronunciation, with the rationalization “we aren’t Japanese”.  Of course, he devolved to calling me stupid in a roundabout way, so I ended the chat  But I’m going to explore that here.

He’s right about one fact:  we aren’t Japanese.  But that’s not important.  I think there are circumstances where it is okay to take a word from another language and change its pronunciation.  Say, for example, that the word contains a sound that does not exist in the “loanee” language.  Then it’s perfectly reasonable to alter the word so that it is easier to pronounce.  That is even more true if the meaning of the word changes significantly.

But there are some circumstances where I think that is not appropriate.  Specifically, proper names.  If you are going to say someone’s name, I think you should make an effort to pronounce it correctly.  Of course, the problem of the sound not existing is still extant, but otherwise, one should at least make an effort.  Because one’s name is one’s name, and it’s a sign of respect to pronounce it properly.

So, I think the commenter (setting aside their thinly veiled attempts at insults) was incorrect.  It’s pronounced “hee-ta-chi”, should be pronounced that way, and those who do not should be gently corrected.

This is why when I say, for example, “Takahashi Minami”, I first of all always say it with the given name first, and I always try to pronounce it the way a native speaker would (as close as I can get, anyway).  It’s just a matter of respect.  I’ll even add “san” when appropriate.  It is, to me, rather jarring when I read articles that try to “westernize” Japanese names.  It never feels right to me.

I will also attempt to say “kawaii” correctly, even if I’m using it as an English loanword (which it is now!).  It is not pronounced like “Hawaii”.  But I will not say the Japanese pronunciation of “typhoon” (taifu) because it is not only a loanword but has been significantly altered to the point where “typhoon” is actually an English word, and that is its correct pronunciation.

Apparently, some people believe that it is never appropriate to correct one’s pronunciation.

They can then ignore me.

I will not stop because they don’t like it.

So there.

Kanji is easier than Hiragana

At my Japanese lesson today, the question was posed:

ひらがなは漢字どちら方が一番やさしいですか (which is the easiest, kanji or hiragana)

I responded 漢字は方が一番やさしいです (kanji is the easiest).

I didn’t make this statement lightly or without thinking.  And while it would have been fun to troll sensei, I wasn’t doing that either.  I really do think that is the correct answer.  And here’s why.

Yes, when it comes to pronunciation, hiragana is by far easier.  This is obvious. Each kana has its own pronunciation, and the syllables are one to one – meaning there is one and only one pronunciation for each kana.  But that doesn’t make it easier.  It just makes it a more predictable writing system, which is not the same thing.

There are two things that make kanji difficult:  the fact that there are so many of them, and the fact that each one has many different pronunciations.  But, honestly, I think this is a problem of scale.  When you take a look at a word with its kanji, compared with the word in hiragana, it’s really no contest.  Kanji is far easier.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you just go by pronunciation, there can be many, many different meanings for the same word, and it is unclear except through context which meaning is the correct one.  The second is that in hiragana, you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins, and this leads to no end of confusion.  So you can tell at a glance which word (and by word I mean meaning and not pronunciation) you are looking at, so it is far easier to figure out what a particular sentence means than by using the equivalent hiragana.

Kanji is more intimidating than hiragana is, for sure.  It’s a lot more to learn and a lot more to memorize.  But not by much, as you would need to remember the words one way or another, and kanji gives you a visual anchor to help memorization.

So, all told, I think kanji is far easier than hiragana.  Hiragana is important and indispensable, for sure – how could you tell how to pronounce the kanji without it!  But for actually getting anywhere with the language – I think staying exclusively with hiragana hurts much more than it helps in the long term.